COVID baby bust: Weekly pregnancies declined by 14% after stay-at-home orders, study finds

When the majority of the U.S. went into lockdown more than a year ago, birth rates fell dramatically, a new study suggests.

Researchers from University of Michigan saw 14 percent decline in pregnancies  following the state’s stay-at-home order.

Using electronic hospital records to determine how pregnancy volumes changed week by week, the team found a steep decline compared to the previous three years. 

COVID led to job loss and overall economic insecurity that caused many women to change their childbearing plans – choosing to have children later or have fewer children.

However, the researchers predict a surge in pregnancies in summer 2021, though – in time with the country’s pandemic recovery.

Pregnancies treated by the University of Michigan hospital fell after the state-mandated stay-at-home order was placed, indicated here by the orange dashed line. The blue dashed line indicates when the stay-at-home order was lifted in June

The Michigan hospital's birth rates remained constant from 2017 to 2020 - until COVID hit.

The Michigan hospital’s birth rates remained constant from 2017 to 2020 – until COVID hit.

As the U.S. shut down in March 2020, scientists were unsure how the stay-at-home orders would impact birth rates.

On one hand, mass layoffs and economic instability meant that many families who wanted kids would need to postpone their plans. On the other, some experts speculated that couples confined to their homes would have kids, simply for lack of other entertainment.

Emerging data suggested the former theory won out: the U.S. saw a baby bust, not a baby boom. 

About nine months after the lockdowns started – in January and February 2021 – births were down 10 percent compared with the previous year.

A new study from the University of Michigan’s academic hospital – published on Thursday in JAMA Network Open – adds evidence to this trend.

The Michigan researchers examined birth rates at the hospital going back to 2017 and modeling forward to fall 2021.  

They used hospital records documenting patients’ initial prenatal visits and ultrasounds to signify the start of a pregnancy. 

Michigan’s state stay-at-home order began on March 15, 2020. By the beginning of April, pregnancy visits had sharply decreased – by 14 percent compared to pre-shutdown levels from about 145 per week to 125 per week.

Through additional analysis, the researchers found that this decrease was tied to fewer pregnancies – not just pregnant patients delaying hospital visits for fear of catching COVID.

The pregnancy rate at this hospital remained low until the end of Michigan’s stay-at-home order in June 2020. 

Pregnancies rose through summer 2020, then dipped again in the winter as COVID surged throughout the U.S.

Pregnancy rates slowed when the U.S. locked down, a study from Michigan shows

Pregnancy rates slowed when the U.S. locked down, a study from Michigan shows

These lower conception rates in spring 2020 led to the lower birth rates observed this winter.

Many women changed their childbearing plans when COVID hit. 

A survey from the Guttmacher Institute found that, in spring 2020, more than 40 percent of women said they changed their plans about when to have children or how many to have.

About one-third of women in this survey said they wanted to get pregnant later or wanted to have fewer children.

This change in plans was more common in women who don’t yet have children and those belonging to groups who already experience health and social inequities.

More black and Hispanic women reported that they wanted to have children later or fewer children compared to white women – 44 and 48 percent, compared to 28 percent. 

LGBTQ women and low-income women were also more likely to report this preference change.

The new study's figures are in line with a 10% decline in births seen across the nation about nine months after lockdowns start

The new study’s figures are in line with a 10% decline in births seen across the nation about nine months after lockdowns start 

Such an attitude change may also be tied to job loss – more prevalent for women during COVID. 

Women have lost a net 5.4 million jobs during the pandemic recession, one million more losses than men.

Black, Hispanic, and Asian women had sharper job losses than white women. Women with these identities were also more likely to lose friends and family members to COVID.

Despite all of these societal hardships and attitude shifts, the birth rate is likely to recover as the U.S. pulls out of the pandemic.

Through modeling, the Michigan researchers predict that the pregnancy rate will surge in summer 2021 – up to 15 percent higher than the rate this spring. 

This means the U.S. could also be seeing a lot of post-COVID babies in early 2022.

The researchers note that childbearing has been a focus of recent government policies, such as the child tax credit included in the American Rescue Plan.

Such economic support may be a game-changer for some of the women who decided to delay having kids during COVID.